Sport in South Belfast
A general overview of sport in south Belfast
Ravenhill in south Belfast is home to Northern Ireland’s two major international sporting sides. The Ulster branch of the Irish Rugby Football Association meets here, and the provincial side Ulster, made up of a smattering of local talent and international test-players, play their home matches in the Celtic League and the prestigious Heineken Cup. The elite of European Rugby have been entertained here, and the excitable crowd loyally turn out to roar the team on.
South Belfast is also a power-base for local rugby, with several excellent school sides, notably the Royal Belfast Academical Institute and Methodist College, providing junior sides such as Belfast Harlequins and Old Instonians with excellent talent. Ulster Rugby’s highest achievement came in 1999 when they won the European Cup, defeating Colomiers at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road. Many factors contributed to that astonishing victory, but the support of the Ravenhill crowd—and the thousands who made the pilgrimage south for the final—was one of the principal motivations for the side.
Windsor Park in south Belfast is where Northern Ireland’s football team have played their home matches since their inception after partition in 1922. Built in the loyalist Village area, Windsor Park is home to Irish Premier Division side Linfield, who rent the ground to the international side. The highlights of Windsor’s turbulent history include the memorable World Cup qualifying campaigns of the 1980s when Billy Bingham became the only manager in the country’s history to steer Northern Ireland to two consecutive world cup finals.
Windsor was also the scene of major riots sparked by sectarian hatred during an Irish Cup match between Linfield and Donegal Celtic, a Catholic team from west Belfast. Crowds are typically poor for international matches, with only 8,000 attending most games compared to over 40,000 for other home nations and the Republic of Ireland. Linfield enjoy some of the largest home crowds in the Premier Division, but these numbers are still very low, creeping over 1000 only very occasionally.
Sporting Clubs and Facilities
The River Lagan and the countryside round it on the southern outskirts of the city provide Belfast’s citizens with ample room to enjoy a host of different sports. The Lagan itself is used for competitive rowing, and there are two boat clubs on the river: the Queen’s University Men’s and Ladies’ Boat Club, and the Methodist College Boat Club, used by college students past and present. The towpath, which stretches from the city centre all the way to Lisburn, gives walkers and joggers a pleasant backdrop for their exercise. Clement Wilson Park, Lagan Meadows, and the Barnett Demesne are used for recreational exercise. Barnett Demesne also hosted the World Cross Country Championships.
The House of Sport, home of the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, is located in south Belfast. The Sports Council works to increase participation in sport especially amongst young people. It strives to improve the standard of coaching, sporting performance and administration in Northern Ireland. The Council is also responsible for distributing funding provided by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and for monies granted by the Lottery Fund.
The House of Sport backs onto the impressive Dub Malone Sports Facility, maintained by Queen’s University Students’ Union. ’The Dub’ is home to most of the University’s outdoor sporting clubs. The facilities comprise the Malone Pavilion and playing fields. The Pavilion includes extensive committee and seminar rooms, the largest changing accommodation in Ireland, as well as the Queen’s Malone Club, a sports bar used for socialising and fundraising. The Dub is a hugely popular venue, not only for students and intervarsity matches, but also for some of Northern Ireland’s major sporting events. It has hosted the World Cross Country Championships, European hockey tournaments, Ulster Rugby matches, the Gaelic Athletic Association Sigerson Cup, as well as community events such as BBC Town Challenge Finale. At present, the facilities include 13 football or rugby pitches (three with floodlights), a hockey pitch, tennis courts, netball courts and two cricket squares.
As well as the boat club and the Dub, the university has an indoor sporting venue on the banks of the Lagan, in Botanic Gardens. The Physical Education Centre has a 25m swimming pool and two large sports halls. The gardens themselves contain a bowling green and open space where locals can go for a run or the students who live in the area can kick a ball about.
Following the famous gold medal performance by the local decathlete Mary Peters in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, the profile of athletics as a sport in Belfast has improved. The culmination of this was the opening of the Mary Peters’ Athletics Track in 1975 on a site near the River Lagan. At this time, there were no modern synthetic running tracks in Northern Ireland. The track has since hosted international meetings and many famous athletes, including Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, have competed here. Most athletes who represent Northern Ireland on the international stage train here.
By Conor McLaughlin